by John Blodgett
Akadi Technologies, a Utah-based technology startup formed in 2007, is showing great promise in the digital signage market. It’s software-as-a-service, available on a month-to-month subscription that allows customers to generate advertising revenue and to broadcast system-wide emergency alerts. What strikes some as unusual is that the company was formed out of the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Technology innovation coming out of a law school is atypical, acknowledges Aaron Dewald, director of technology initiative at the College of Law and “chief visionary officer” for Akadi, but his philosophy on the matter is broad. “Innovation can come out of anywhere,” he says. “People have a need for something, and that’s where innovation comes from.”
Akadi is among the results of the College of Law’s Technology Initiative, which “seeks to capture the power of technology to expand our audience, build community, increase efficiency, engage our students, and advance their learning objectives,” according to Hiram Chodosh, dean of the College of Law. “This requires resources, a great team, and a school committed to smart innovation. The recognition of Akadi and market demand for DAN advances our technology strategy and demonstrates we have one of the best technology teams in the country.
When Dewald was hired in 2006 by Dan Gorrell, the late director of information technology at the College of Law, Gorrell was trying to find use for a recently funded flat panel display. The first hurdle was the lack of software to customize what it could do. Some months later, having been awakened by Gorrell’s “very loud” snoring during a Jackson Hole ski vacation, Dewald walked to a coffee shop at 5:30 AM and started to write code. “It was one of those situations where it poured out of my fingers like nothing,” he recalls. Within a day or so the basis of the software was born. Dewald’s partner in Akadi, Wes Christiansen, is support services manager for the College of Law and focuses on hardware and systems setup for Akadi. The software has since been named Display & Alert Network, or DAN, in honor of their boss.
At first, the idea was to display events on the flat panel display—a calendar of events perhaps, maybe a map, too. For a while they had it displaying television, but Dewald admits it was a “hack job of sorts.” Today that first display hangs front and center of the Moot Courtroom, where it provides a video feed of courtroom events during times of overflow.
The idea to commercialize the display software innovation came about as a result of what Dewald calls a chance meeting at the U of U Campus Store. Management was looking into acquiring digital signage, learned that Dewald was writing his own software that could fit that bill, and after a few weeks Dewald was asked to fulfill the bookstore’s digital signage needs. Also bolstering support for the company was its top ten finish in the 2007 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, an annual event sponsored by the Lassonde Center in the Eccles School of Business.
Dewald envisions two markets, education and outdoor recreation. For the former, various messages and other content can be pushed to every system screen; for the latter, flat panel displays placed in, say, ski rental shops could provide snow reports, Web cams, traffic reports, and more.
There also is the option to use it for advertising, such as a discount lift ticket offer at a particular ski resort. “Advertising is a hot topic on campus,” Dewald admits. “Some people are against it. By the same token, they’re cutting funding for a lot of things. If you do it right, pick the right kind of ads, you can make money to help pay for these things.”
Akadi was organized as a limited liability company early in 2008, and has since grown rapidly. “A lot of this is coming fast,” says Dewald. “We’re going through what everybody else goes through, learning as we go.” The company is self-sustaining at the moment, making most of its revenue from monthly subscriptions, but Dewald says they are open to advertising and other options to advance growth.
Dewald, who is working toward a master’s degree in education at the U, says that Akadi came out of the College of Law is a testament to how the college approaches technology. “Akadi serves as an example of the types of things our Technology Initiative is capable of,” he says. “As we move forward with the Technology Initiative, we can apply things we’ve learned along the way to new ventures and new ideas.”